First of all, as much as I personally trust Wikipedia, I would like to urge you to not trust Wikipedia. I go on there to get the book covers all the time and right underneath this picture was the information that Margaret Mitchell originally wrote the book in Japanese. I can just picture the blonde-girl-I-hated who was in all of my English classes raising her nasty bitten fingernails and going, “Actually, Margaret Mitchell was Asian.” Nice one, assholes. You didn’t get me this time, but next time, you probably will.
So anyway. I have been thinking about this book all day, because I read something this morning in New York magazine that called Gone With the Wind “kitsch Tolstoy.” And I was like, wait, that sounds perfect, but is it really like that? and then I realized that–despite the fact that I have read the ridiculous 1991 sequel Scarlett several times; yes, I am trashy–I have only ever read Gone With the Wind once. In fourth grade.
This is what I remember:
How pretty Tara, the plantation, seemed to be; Scarlett being obsessed with whether or not she could show her bosom at a casual morning barbecue; the description of her dresses in her first scene that made me lust after the antebellum South just for its fabric; stupid, milquetoast, gentlemanly Ashley, whom I hated so much and can probably blame for a decent amount of my being attracted to assholes; the totally terrible part where Scarlett tries to fool Rhett into thinking she’s rich by making a dress out of curtains but she can’t hide her work-hardened hands, and in her humiliation marries that terrible Frank person, who may not have had red hair in the book but who embodies everything people make fun of about gingers; how spoiled Bonnie (Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter) is and how much I wanted to be her and have her pony.
That is literally all I remember. No war, no plantation, no hard work, no I will never go hungry again. Just bitches and hoes and pretty dresses.
I haven’t ever seen this book cover in stores. Usually it’s the one with the black-and-white picture of saddle shoes, or the one that just has a half-nose and a mouth–right? And thank goodness, because the only way Lolita is physically tolerable is to think of it in parts. Pedophilia can be artsied up considerably, and Nabokov elevates it as high as it will ever go, but a cover like this reminds you that Lolita as a potential real-life girl is a quite upsetting thought. We’ve gotten so comfortable with this book as an established part of literature that we’ve forgotten the importance of the last word in the phrase, “a classic Russian novel about a young girl and a pedophile.”
Of course, it deserves to be a classic. The writing is unforgettable; Nabokov is able to unleash the English language into some sort of brilliant directional arrow that winds its way through the mazes of the human psyche, to the point where you can understand the spiraling, generous, profound depths of a desirous person’s inner life. To get a character who enables you to explore this, you have to have fairly extraordinary circumstances; the Russian novels that do it–Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, etc–are all filled with pain and scummy people and uncomfortable, sad situations. But it’s a long way between regular sad and the sad of a twelve-year-old girl who’s so fucked up that she seduces a pedophile. There is a lot that is nauseating about Lolita. I read the book when I was twelve myself, which is probably the reason I’m still so uncomfortable about it–but still.
This excerpt should clear things right up.
“She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.”
I think Malcolm Gladwell is hilarious. I cannot help it. First of all, what a face, right? But in general he’s just a ridiculous man. He’s famous for making up a large portion of the actually popular pop-economics book sector (Blink and The Tipping Point are probably located on your local amateur know-it-all’s bookshelf right next to Freakonomics and Nickel and Dimed). And, awesome. Obviously Gladwell is a unique intellect and his mind operates on a level where he’s able to synthesize all this random phenomena into cute little theories, and all the articles he writes for the New Yorker are quick and palatable, but whatever–the man is ridiculous. In everything he does, he seems able to pluck these algorithmic, universal truths from absolutely nowhere, and he lays down his theories with such common-man elegance that I always end up thinking, what the fuck. If Malcolm Gladwell didn’t exist, would no one have ever done anything with the fact that all successful Canadian hockey players are born in January? Someone needs to write a good Malcolm Gladwell parody, and I only wish I were smart enough to sustain such a thing for longer than a few pages. Like Guerilla or Gorilla: How Misunderstanding is the Key to Understanding Social Deviance, a book in which the first section would start with an anecdote about the sizing regulations for children’s clothing at Target and end with a one-sentence rule telling you how to make your first billion dollars.
But specifically, about Outliers. I will save you the trouble of reading it. Two things: look up Gladwell’s list of the 75 richest people of all time, which could potentially teach a person something but mostly taught me that it would have been awesome to be a robber baron. The other thing to know is the now-fairly-famous 10,000 rule, in which he basically says that if you do something for 10,000 hours, you will be awesome at it. That is essentially why I started this blog. So whatever you love, keep on plugging at it for a couple thousand more hours. Gladwell’s books sell so well that this theory is worth a try, and if you need any more convincing, just look at that face!
Harold Bloom. In middle school I remember thinking, who is this ridiculous person whose name is all over everything–I was writing some paper about something terrible and I just remember ending every single sentence with (Bloom 9), (Bloom 14), etc. Harold fucking Bloom. Anyway, he is of course not an imaginary literary octopus but a very real genius, and like I said in the White Noise post, he named DeLillo, Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip Roth as the four major contemporary American writers (Bloom 135).
Philip Roth, although he has plenty of three-page sentences, is the most plain and least ecstatic of this set. The Human Stain is about class, academia, oral sex, caricatures, a woman who pretends to be illiterate, and a black man who passes as white. Is that enough to persuade you to read it? Actually, I don’t know if I would wholeheartedly recommend this one in terms of pleasure or entertainment. Where it’s brilliant is in the writing, where Roth is able to plainly and forcefully push through the spaces that block novels from feeling whole: he shifts seamlessly between time and voice and persona and perspective, so you can see the world of his book as this odd, unlikely cohesive whole–and I suppose that is very appropriate to a book about a black professor who’s spent his life as a white man.
I will say that I was reading this book stoned out of my mind and spent literally two hours thinking about this sentence from page 52: “Nothing lasts, and yet nothing passes, either. And nothing passes just because nothing lasts.” Omg seriously though. Switch out all the meanings of “nothing”–the usual one, then “nothing” meaning the state of nothingness, then “nothing” meaning “no thing”–omg omg omg kill me.
Now this is a book that people who don’t like to read should read. If they assigned this book in high school (although they certainly would never have assigned it in mine: too much sex, and perhaps worse, too many glimpses of contemporary “minority issues” that might persuade people to reconsider or at the very least consider their own conservatism; no, only the best Noble Savage bullshit for the Baptists)–anyway, if they assigned this book in high school, I bet kids would actually read it. And like it. Or love it and become obsessed, because Drown speaks directly to the emotional, social extremes that teenagers might most want to read about–sex, of course, but also drugs, danger, insecurity, isolation, trying to be cool. And I don’t intend to say that this book is best for adolescents, because it’s not. It’s well-engineered and completely mature as a collection, with no easy messages or themes, and the writing is killer.
I’m pretty obsessed with Junot Diaz. Like when I was trying to think of things to do after I graduated, I considered trying to stalk him for a year and then writing a book called My Year Stalking Junot Diaz. And although I didn’t do that (there’s still time!), I wrote a chapter of my thesis on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and doing the research really cemented my love. Diaz is socially conscious in a powerful, organic way: like, in one interview, he says “I just can’t imagine that one is a writer in the Americas and not in some way directly confronting the colossal power of the United States…. no matter how much you try, you are going to graze up against the question, what does it mean to live in a world where there’s one country that is so asymmetrically powerful and what are the consequences of that power?” Notice that he says “no matter how much you try.” I love that: it’s like, he wants to write about drugs or comic books or juvie, but it’s written into his conscience that all of that is wrapped up with global politics. And he pulls it off, talking about both.
I could go on for years about Junot Diaz. But okay, this is one last example of how he routinely accomplishes another fairly extreme juxtaposition–this one mixed up with masculinity and softness, gritty distance and then intimacy. In “Aurora,” a story in Drown, he describes the room where he’s hooking up with a girl: “concrete with splotches of oil, a drain hole in the corner where we throw our cigs and condoms.” Next page, “She picks off my glasses and kisses the parts of my face that almost never get touched, the skin under the glass and frame.” Almost nothing, but extraordinary.
I never liked this book, but I respected that it was successful–it proved on a very basic and somewhat asinine level that people are still wanting to believe that our idiotic po-mo world can be analyzed successfully. But Chuck Klosterman’s playing field is a little too much for me. You are what you eat, and you can’t eat the shallow, chemical layer cake of American culture and still take a good productive shit, you know what I mean?
He calls the book a “low culture manifesto,” and the sustained idiocy of those three words continues throughout the entire book. There are 18 essays with various titles that all sound very similar to “Captain Crunch is Taking a Blood Bath: How Star Wars Proves That Americans Can’t Have Good Sex,” and they are all split up–this is honestly the worst part–by funny little “interludes,” which are not funny, and are pretty much identical to page 3 of your average stoner’s journal.
But whatever. Anything that makes people think about how weird today’s culture is has got to be more good than bad, and if people start getting over-profound as a result I think it’s worth it. And regardless, I doubt this book would be so successful were it to be published today. Chuck Klosterman hit the self-aggrandizing, cultural-studies-lite snark button at the perfect moment in 2003, but now all of this kind of thing has been splintered and reproduced and bled dry of any weight it ever could have had. Too many amateurs spoiling the pot. I’m sick of blogs, even my own. Give me some Dickens.
Just making sure we all remember that this book exists, is awesome, and should be reread as soon as possible. The other night I picked it up and couldn’t stop reading once I started, and that’s what I like about all these Newbery books: they are both short and brilliant, and meant to be reread all at once, in a 3 to 5 AM burst of gratitude that something so simple can be so interesting.
The Giver, though, has had a surprisingly controversial history. Which sucks because it’s not controversial. To refresh, it’s set in a utopian/dystopian world, where there is no pain, emotional or physical; kids are born to Birthmothers and then distributed to perfect nuclear family units, which are arranged by some mysteriously perfect algorithm; your career is chosen for you at the age of 12, and from then on it’s this blank, smiley, anesthetized version of The Busy World of Richard Scarry. If you do anything wrong, you are “released,” which is to say killed by lethal injection. The story is about Jonas, who is chosen to be the Receiver–the one person in the society who is given the memories of what the real world is like. So he’s the only one who gets to see color, hear music, or feel anything at all. And of course the shit hits the fan, because like any good child-protagonist, Jonas is brave enough to realize that this is ridiculous, and he takes some action.
But for some reason, a lot of people think that the book’s message–it shows you very simply that experience is good, that it’s better to know things than to suppress them–is bad for children. For example, everyone in the society takes a pill every day to suppress their “Stirrings,” which is the Giver-world word for sexuality, and Jonas, as he learns more about what life was like before, stops taking his pills. One does not have to be stupid to recognize that this is a great message to have in a children’s book. But all those mommas, who wish their little boys and girls would indeed just be able to take a pill and live a creepy, numb, sheltered life: they’ve got The Giver on the watch list.
Occasionally, usually after reading something mediocre, I will get incredibly annoyed and slip into a zone where I can completely understand the thought process of people who don’t like “literature” at all. Because fiction can seem completely irritating as a concept: there are so many zillions of minor events occurring in every house in every city in every country that it gets ridiculous to even consider the numbers of novels that have tried, ever-awkwardly, to crystallize something important out of the great big world of human experience.
And so many bad ones too–think of how many floundering paperbacks exist with only a Powells.com blurb to bolster them, some back-cover bullshit reading something like, “Maine is a deadly place with a big secret. In Flapper McBoyle’s astonishing sophomore novel, we meet Alice, a single mother coming home for the first time in ten years only to discover that the midwife who delivered her holds the key to the entire town’s past” etc.–and it’s like, WHO CARES?!?!?!?! Who CARES about all these little stories! Stop describing things that don’t exist!
Well, it’s a good thing that there are so many legitimately tremendous writers out there. Zadie Smith is a talent for sure, and On Beauty is wonderful. It’s an academic satire novel, which is a genre that has lately become underdeveloped. And it is so good and naturally empathetic and honest that all of a sudden, reading fiction seems to make perfect sense. You realize the very simple reason you started liking to read books the first place, back when you were a kid–fiction is the thing that, above all other forms, allows you to understand what it is to be another person. And that ability and privilege is funny, eye-opening, humbling, and necessary. If more conservative people read books, we’d have universal health care in America like that.
John Brockman is the guy who started the Edge Foundation, a thingy for drawing out what Brockman calls the “third culture,” which is the point where literary thinkers and scientists (i.e. the first and second culture) are now coming together to “take the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” Okay, whatever, awesome. I mean, I’m down with that and I think it’s interesting, but let’s be honest, on the average day it’s all I can do to remember to charge my cell phone. I’m just going to put it out there that, on a day-to-day basis, it’s pretty fucking hard to think seriously about “redefining who and what we are.” Even all you smart people out there, you’ve all got jobs and brunch plans and online banking to think about, and it’s quite a commitment to really think about something. Which I suppose proves Brockman’s quasi-point: that today, as ever, a very small amount of people are doing all the important thinking for the rest of us. And as the title would suggest, this book asks a bunch of prominent intellectuals–Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond–to each write a piece on what they personally believe but cannot prove.
And so, as you could imagine, it’s super interesting and all the better because it’s easy to process. Because the pieces are so short, it’s not exhausting; it’s Bill Brysonish, like a beach book crossed with a great textbook. Or like TED Talks with even less commitment. For example, one person’s essay is on the fact that numerical counting is the only surefire way of communicating with aliens. So basically this book is perfect for the person who is a level above dilettantism but still kind of lazy: like me, and maybe you.
Okay, many great things about this book. The Kite Runner is the first book published in English by an author from Afghanistan, which is objectively, undeniably cool. Also cool: it’s become a super popular required reading book in high schools, which obviously is fantastic, as it’s a lot more relevant and engaging than Ethan Frome or any of the over-reduced, over-Sparknoted, over-assigned classics. And The Kite Runner explains a lot of details about Afghanistan’s history that the average high-schooler, or the average person really (including myself) would probably never take the time to look up and understand on their own. And finally, the whole kite thing–there are local kite tournaments that are described in this very lovely, unearthly way–is gorgeous, and it has enough integrity and emotional power on its own that when the full novel-factor is brought in around it (a child rape scene and the phrase “For you, a thousand times over”), you can handle it.
But okay. Sitting as I am in the middle of American comfort and never having experienced danger like this in my life, I know that it’s an incredibly dick move to criticize something like the way Khaled Hosseini writes about baccha (the Turkish/Afghani pederast tradition of keeping a “dance boy” around to wear makeup and women’s clothing and do terrible things). But I don’t know.
Hosseini at parts is very ready to engage our super-Westernized perspective of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and when, for example, he describes a lipsticked young boy saying, “I’m so dirty and full of sin. The bad man and the other two did things to me”–it’s so jarringly Jodi Picoult-ish that it seems as if all the information about Afghanistan that he wove throughout his book has disappeared all of a sudden. Like he’s not describing a circumstance in a specific, dense cultural context but rather just allowing the shock value to come through on the American terms that have made this book such a huge bestseller. And obviously this is a complicated issue, and I don’t mean to talk about abuse like it’s something that should fade into the background of the way it is described by an author, but–”I’m so dirty and full of sin”? Without sentences like these, The Kite Runner could have been real literature rather than a book sold at Starbucks next to Tuesdays with Morrie.